by Maro Polykarpou
The war in Ukraine has been taking place since 2014 and has been the subject of interest for big powers such as Russia, USA, Europe and China, leading the country to lose its own independent interests. For this reason the International Institute for Peace (IIP), the Platform for Dialogue and Conflict Resolution in Ukraine and the US Embassy in Austria invited Nolan Peterson, who has been reporting on the war in Ukraine since the summer of 2014, as a Kyiv-based correspondent. Peterson documents the situation on the front lines. To Peterson this war „feels like a secret“. As a result of the decreasing media presence this war often seems like „a forgotten story’ and this is what inspired him to go the Ukraine and document the situation. In order to give a glimpse of the current circumstances in the frontlines of the war Peterson showed excerpts of his film ‘8 Days on the Front Line’, in which he depicts his experience in the eastern Ukrainian village of Pisky - only six kilometres from the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, and two kilometres from the ruined Donetsk airport - where the Ukrainian army 93rd Mechanized Brigade is fighting to stop a breakout by combined Russian-separatist forces.
As the film informs us, the Minsk agreements that were purporting to establish a ceasefire between the two forces, are violated by the combined Russian-separatist forces everyday. Facing these constant lethal attacks, the Ukrainian forces are forced to defend themselves with heavy weapons banned under the Minsk II Agreement - resulting in a complete collapse of the February 12th, ceasefire. After 12 months of war, Pisky has been converted into a destroyed wasteland. Unfortunately, it is not just the physical damages that are a consequence of this war. The combat also takes a psychological toll on the Ukrainian troops, as they have to exist in an environment where life depends on the fate of inches and seconds. Peterson recalls a conversation with 19-year-old Daniel Kasyanenko, who fought for the Ukrainian troops. A couple months later he died during battles. During their brief conversation the sound of Russian gunshots in the background immediately convey the dramatic reality these men have to face every day. As Peterson himself notes it is a ‘static war“ where the operative ceasefire ‘was dead on arrival’. Every single day, civilians and soldiers are still dying. On average one Ukrainian soldier dies every 3 days in combat, whilst 21 thousand civilians risk their lives every months, crossing the front lines, due to landmines.
But the war is not confined to the frontlines. The Russian invasion in Ukraine has a far reaching effect going beyond the armed combat. Peterson gives us his perspective on what he calls ‘another war’, namely the Russian media propaganda. The gravity of the situation is conveyed through one of the conversations he has had with a Ukrainian civilian. After asking him 'who destroyed your homes', Peterson received the unexpected response 'the American CIA-bomber planes'. As Peterson explained, such extraneous beliefs stem from what these people see in the news. The media is a major influence on who is to be deemed as the offender of the conflict, taking advantage of the credulous citizens, who are cut off from the outside world. They distort their perception of reality to their advantage. But the truth is one, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an European sovereign state.
The importance that Russia places on media propaganda has been evident from the beginning of the war. One of the first things they did upon invading Ukraine was to destroy TV and radio antennas and take over cell-phone networks. With only Russian stations transmitting across the invaded areas, Russia’s complete control over the media acts as an aid on its quest to further destabilize the entire country. But Ukrainians have stood their ground. To counter the Russian propaganda, the Ukrainians have rebuild almost all broken TV antennas, so that the people that are caught within the war zone are able to receive impartial news and information. Furthermore, they banned Russian internet search engines and the most popular social networks sites. In this war it is clear that the interests of security take precedence over any needs for freedom of speech. Despite their effort, however, Russia still jams most of these station transmissions. If that was not enough, Russian cyber attacks damaged the Ukrainian power and water supply systems and interfered with the control tower of the largest airport. What began as a hyper conflict has unravelled into a traditional war that continues to destabilize an entire country.
As to the possibility of dialogue becoming a peaceful conflict resolution, Peterson has to say that it has become pretty clear to Ukrainians and anyone else involved in the conflict that a military solution is not feasible. Ukrainian troops are not trying to gain back the territory they lost but rather they are simply waiting for a political solution that will bring an end to the war. But there remain great obstacles that have to be overcome in order to achieve this. Dialogues with separatist are effectively redundant as they have no government and they are controlled on all levels by Moscow. For Ukraine to take a political standpoint would require federalising the whole country giving the Russian controlled areas voting rights in the Ukrainian parliament. Such a political move will not be tolerated either by civilians or the military. The people of Ukraine have given so much for this war, trying to stand up to their democratic values, that they will by no means let their efforts go to waste, Peterson emphasises. The only way for the war to be over is for president Putin to take the decision to end it, to stop funding and supporting the separatists.
But how do we achieve this? How could we bring Russia to end the war? The only realistic way that Peterson acknowledges is for the US to stand its ground and to make clear to Russia that it can no longer hope for America’s backing if it continues funding this war.
When Peterson was asked to what extend a UN peacekeeping mission is realistic at the moment, Peterson commented that despite UN interference being initially a desired means to achieve peace, it has now been proven to be not very efficient. UN peacekeeping force can only stay within the frontline area and as a result monitor mechanisms are failing. As Peterson explains a UN peacekeeping force whose mandate is partially written by Russia could never be effective. But he does leave the possibility of discussion open, as there is a pressing need for an international presence in Ukraine that is more robust, as the more eyes are on the conflict the less possible it is for Russia to get away with disinformation.
Stephanie Fenkart raised the point that nobody talks about the people living in these areas. 10.000 people have already died. 2 million people had to flee. It’s a blind spot. Peterson acknowledges this point. Despite the fact that the intensity of the war has decreased since it began in 2014, the Ukrainian civilians in the Russian controlled areas still live under extremely inhumane conditions. War has become their way of life and the civilian society is being rebuilt to co-exist with the ongoing war.
Russia in its attempt to mitigate the graveness of its international law violations argues that people cannot pinpoint to the situation in Ukraine given that America and its EU partners have also violated international law in Syria. Unfortunately, Russia uses this narrative to turn attention away from its actions. But as Peterson emphasized ‘the situation in Syria and in Ukraine cannot be compared’. As he explains ‘Russia has also been effective in painting the revolution in Ukraine as an unjust American sponsored coup against the legitimate elected president’. But that has little to do with the reality. According to Peterson the revolution was an unexpected uprising incident to overthrow a corrupt criminal regime. No one saw it coming, not only the US but also not even Russia itself. Ukrainians had a legitimate aim, to have a country that is sovereign and independent, that has its own voice about its future and is not controlled by Russia. In trying to combat their anti-Russian sentiments, Russia had completely misread the Ukrainian people and launched a war aimed to dilute people’s enthusiasm for belonging in a sovereign state. But the Ukrainians are more resolute than ever to maintain the independent path they are on. Whatever controversial issues divide the Western societies are irrelevant and cannot deprive the legitimacy of the Ukrainians objective.
For Peterson his work as a journalists is ‘as much a weapon as any bombs ever dropped’. Raising awareness about the issue and uncovering the truth in order to give candid and unbiased stories to the wider public puts Russia’s tactics at a disadvantage. However, for him it is really disappointing to see that there are ten stories about Trump in the New York Times, whilst issues on conflicts like the one in Ukraine become less and less touched upon. The problem seems to lie in the journalist model adopted in the USA and most Western countries. Since sponsoring mostly comes out of advertisements, journalist and editors choose stories that are more popular in the wider public, and foreign affair stories are left on the side, as they are not that profitable. Sadly, the seriousness of the war and what is at stake is not making it back to the headlines.
What Peterson believes is a compounding factor in the existing conflict between Russia and the West, is the fact that we do not fundamentally understand each other. The minimal interaction between us does not enable us to appreciate each other's position. As he goes on to add, while NATO seems happy to add more Balkan countries under its jurisdiction and considers this to be an important step towards attaining and maintaining peace, Russia construes this as a violation of what was promised after the cold war and perceives the West as an enemy again. However, as Peterson explains the problem is party factored by the insufficient amount of journalist send out there. You can’t understand the lives and concerns of people from other states if you don’t live there and interact with them. You cannot convey the immediacy of the problem if you cover your stories from miles away from where the events take place.
Peterson maintains that the US interest in Ukraine is to protect the sovereignty of the country and not let it be faded against the interests of Russia. The conflict in Ukraine is ‘fundamentally important for the security of the rest of Europe’. He gives the example of an incident where interceptive weapons coming out of the conflict were stopped from going into the hands of terrorists in Western Europe, by the Ukrainian intelligence forces. He emphatically claims ‘how can we not support people who decide to live in a free society’. Ukraine needs to have its voice heard in an international form and the Russians need to be stopped from clouding the truth regarding the revolution. As Peterson adds, Ukrainians themselves told him that they are fighting because they don’t want to live in a country controlled by Russia. They want to live in a free society with good universities, that provides them with opportunities for their future.
The war places a huge impediment on Ukraine’s Western pivot. It is slowing down the reform process as it takes top priority in Ukraine’s agenda, putting a strain on the countries resources. In some ways, Peterson argues, the best Putin can do to further his effort in destabilizing Ukraine is to just end the war. The costs of rebuilding the ruined areas are equivalent to the entire annual government budget. From this perspective Ukraine cannot afford to win the war. But as he goes on to say, the Russians are very calculative in their actions. Everything they do is assessed to the extent that it has the most minimal impact on Russia. The example he gives is that most of the soldiers fighting on the Russian front lines are in fact Ukrainians, whilst others come from the deepest parts of Siberia. The reason behind this, as he explains, is that if the deaths were of men from central Russia and big cities such as Moscow or St. Petersburg, this would have a significant negative impact in the media, stirring up anti-war sentiments in Russia, which would place Putin at a disadvantage.
Another consequence that the static war has had in Ukraine is the diminishing effect that it has brought hope of its people to become a part of European Union and of having a better future in Ukraine. At the heart of the revolution laid sentiments of desire to belong to the European Union and its democratic values and to change the course of the country’s orientation towards a Western direction. However, as the war drags on, people have become more cynical over the prospects of successful attaining that. As Peterson puts it ‘all the hope of the revolution got sucked into maintaining the war’. Sadly, the conflict, compounded by the bad economic situation that exists in the country, has lead young people to believe that they do not have a future in Ukraine. Rather than staying and trying to reform and rebuild their country, the younger generations of Ukraine find that the best prospect for their individual success is to leave the country and migrate either in the US or to Central European countries.
As to the efficacy of the sanctions imposed on Russia, Peterson mentions that ‘sanctions are complicated but there is nothing else we can do. We are limited to that’. Russia is the largest nuclear power in the world and influences any decisions made by the West. Irrespective of the severity of such sanctions, they seem to carry little weight over Russia’s decisions. As Peterson explains, having lost their Soviet Empire, these punishments are construed rather as a honour by Russians in their fight against Western imperialism. They seem to have the counter effect of creating an element of pride to Russians, as they are a proof of their fight against an order they find unjust. He suggests that a better way would be if the sanctions are not targeted to Russia as a whole but rather are specifically aimed to the Russian oligarchy. But this suggestion might have a detrimental effect. If Russia’s oligarchy finds itself shut down by the West they will become dependent on Putin for the security and preservation of their financial well-being. They will thus not be able to act independently and we will lose the possibility of them pressuring the government to enter negotiations. But placing our hopes on the Russian population does seem to have little or even no possibility of success as Peterson observes. What creates friction between the population of Russia and their government is the corruption of officials in everyday life and not being punished for what their government does abroad.
The war has created solidarity between the Ukrainian nationals as they join their powers to combat the intruders. Most of the civilians have in some way contributed to the joint effort. From teachers to students joining the armed forces. Peterson describes this as ‘unique’ and in many ways it is. He gives in particular the example of women. In a society where they do not share the Western views towards women rights and equality, this has not stopped female civilians from joining the armed forces. In the war Ukraine is on par with every Western country in allowing female members to join the combat. As he goes on to add this stems from the fact that in combat everyone is unified, everyone’s desire for a free sovereign Ukraine transcends all barriers.
Since 2014 Ukrainian soldiers have been telling Peterson that they are fighting for Europe. The war serves as a symbol of the conflict between Russia and the West. As Peterson sees it, the war not only remains an existential threat to Ukraine but also to Europe at large, as it could ultimately escalate in a way that no one expects or wants. Despite the Ukrainians will to fight, they do need help within this conflict. For this reason the US weapons are a game changing booster for the Ukrainian soldiers. Support of Europe and the US sends a signal to the Ukrainians that the war was not forgotten and that the West stands with them. But we must not stay confined to governmental actions. Each individual can contribute in its own way. For Peterson it is important that people read about the subject, visit Kiev and talk to the people first hand in order to learn the truth. Events such as the one organised by the International Institute for Peace (IIP), the Platform for Dialogue and Conflict Resolution in Ukraine and the US Embassy Austria, are of vast importance to bring awareness to the issue. Further, as the humanitarian aspect of the war has been overlooked, it is vital to contribute to organisations that send food and goods to these people that are left in the warzone, neglected by both Ukraine and Russia. Nolan Peterson finishes with the statement that we must show them that the Western society not only has not forgotten about them but is actively striving to offer them a better life.